Veterans younger than age 40 who may have been exposed to burn pits and other toxins during their service are now eligible for breast cancer risk assessments and clinically appropriate mammograms in the Veterans Affairs (VA) health system, the department announced in July 2023.

Veterans potentially exposed to toxins are eligible for the screenings regardless of age, symptoms, family history, and enrollment in VA health care. For veterans without toxic exposure, VA follows American Cancer Society guidelines for breast cancer screenings and mammograms beginning at age 40. The potentially life-saving expansion advances President Biden’s Unity Agenda and drives progress toward the Cancer Moonshot, VA said. Breast cancer is also a presumptive condition under the PACT Act, the largest expansion of veterans’ care and benefits in generations. 

“We at VA are expanding breast cancer screenings for toxic-exposed veterans because early detection saves lives,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said. “This is an important step toward making sure that breast cancer is diagnosed early, treated early, and—hopefully—sent into remission early.”

The new eligibility is part of the Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas SERVICE Act, VA said. It covers veterans who served during certain timeframes in Iraq, the Southwest Asia theater of operations, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, and other locations and times as determined by the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. The risk assessment is a series of questions about a patient’s toxic exposures, family medical history, and other risk factors to determine whether they should have a mammogram. VA said that veterans who are interested in the breast cancer risk assessment screenings should contact their VA primary care provider or reach out to their local VA medical center

As part of the Cancer Moonshot, government-wide policies are focusing on areas that can make a difference to patients immediately. Since 2022, more than 4 million veterans have received VA’s toxic exposure screening introduced under the PACT Act. As community health advocates, oncology nurses can raise awareness about the programs so service members can seek out potentially life-saving cancer screenings.